The Gerald Custom Timber Home

The Process Of Designing Dreams

by: Murray Arnott, AIBD

Guest Commentary by Custom Wood Home Architects and Designers


How do you get from the inkling of an idea to a great home? As they say, it ain’t easy, but the end result is worth it. Clients come to designers and architects with ideas on napkins, scraps of paper, or on the backs of maps or parking tickets (it happens — people driving past a home with a feature they’d like to incorporate scramble for anything to write on). Then we must do a certain amount of digging before the actual digging begins. We not only consider structure, supports, and seismic issues — we play the role of psychologist, teacher, and occasionally mediator between competing visions of different family members.

Most people tend to start their planning process by studying floor plans. But a great home is more than walls and a roof — it’s a finely-tuned reflection of the character and vision of the owners. That vision is almost always difficult to articulate and turn into actual plans, so our role as designers is to take what is non-physical — character, personality, values, ideas — and translate them into the physical, clarifying and expanding the vision. How is this done?


  1. HISTORY. The first question I ask when clients bring in floor plan concepts is, “How did you arrive at this current idea?” I’m looking for the why’s, not just the whats, and they’re found further back

Typical background questions include, “Why have you chosen this region or neighborhood?” “Why a wooden home?” “What things are important to you in a home?” The answers help define a vision of the ultimate home. They’re memories of homes you have been in, that have made an impression on you during stages of your life — these thoughts have made you feel secure, alive, excited, filled with wonder.

When I was a novice designer, I often took the ideas brought to me as gospel. Years ago, the Underhills came to me with plans to tear off the roof of their home and add a second story master bedroom. After some tinkering in the office, I couldn’t locate the stairs within the current floor plan in a way we were happy with. So I walked to the end of the property and looked back at the massing and roof of the home. That’s when I realized the home didn’t want a second floor — it needed an addition off the end. The Underhills were curious, then pleased. The home had a more natural appearance, better flow, and living arrangements that made them happier.


  1. LIFESTYLE. A home is really a container that should support the unique ways we live or want to live. Rather than focusing on rooms, we examine your activities and the factors that enhance your enjoyment life.

We also need to think about how your lifestyle may change over time. This may include failing health, children getting older and moving out, new children, or aging parents moving in.

The Donaldson’s were retiring from busy careers in Pennsylvania to a more sedentary lifestyle in Virginia. In working with them, we took careful note of their new lifestyle — it affected the placement and size of rooms, including flexibility so initial telecommuting could be traded for more leisurely activities in the future. The result was a home primarily designed with one floor with offices that could be converted to hobby rooms.


  1. CHARACTER. Homes are usually designed for more than one person, but it should reflect the character of each individual and the family as a whole. And, yes, interviewing and designing a home to accommodate all these traits, activities, and interests can get complicated.

It’s common for some members of a family to be very social. They like backyard parties, multiple people playing video games, wine-tasting parties. Other family members are quiet and contemplative, and want a cozy place to read, do a woodworking project, or sit on a porch.

In the Carlyle family, David is outgoing and gregarious. His wife Kathy is quiet and contemplative. Teenage son Robert is all over the map. The home I designed for them provided spaces that reflected these unique characteristics yet spoke to the overall family character — some rooms that were open and others that were more secluded. And each family member got their own private space that reflected their unique character. To get to this stage, a thorough meeting was essential — the four of us sat in their home for hours discussing their likes, dislikes, dreams and hobbies.


  1. VALUES. Values are ephemeral to pin down, but often provide the backbone for a design. Some of these values may include tradition, sustainability, a close-knit family, a love of the outdoors, social interaction, serenity, or a combination of several. They all contribute to the style and mood of a home and the specific design elements. Working with clients ranging from eclectic artists to orthodox Jews, each home has to reflect this diversity.


  1. TRUST. A great home is always the result of an in-depth understanding of my clients. We need to establish mutual trust — the client must understand I’m looking out for their best interests; our communication must be open and frank and they need to feel safe and valued.

Years ago, a former client, Jason, flew me out to view his lakefront property. While I was busy peppering him with questions about his project, he was more interested in talking about his work, his wife, and his family. As an owner of a large company he knew the nature of our relationship was essential to a successful project — he wanted to know he could trust me. When I started to listen to what was important to him, we established that rapport and the project took off.

You establish trust by listening and by being willing to help clients understand the complexities of the design process. We can’t rush someone faster than they can handle. If a husband wants to slow down to think about the size of that loft, we have to step back. When a wife wants to see another option for the kitchen plan because she doesn’t feel quite right about it, we discuss her concerns.

If I succeed in developing trust with my clients and gain an understanding of their character, vision, values, and dreams, the more likely I will be to create a great home.


For more information call 607-467-2700, e-mail at or visit our contact page